Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Are they what they ‘Apiru to be? More than 350 cuneiform tablets such as the one shown here have been found at Tell el-Amarna, capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenophis IV, 1353–1335 B.C.E.). Many of the tablets contain correspondence between Akhenaten (or his predecessor) and his vassal kings in Canaan. The letters reveal an empire in trouble: Egypt was losing control of its subject states, including Canaan, and Canaan itself was beset by problems inflicted by a mysterious people known as the ‘Apiru. The ‘Apiru were outside the ranks of normal Canaanite society and acted as hired agricultural workers, mercenaries and even as outlaws. The Amarna letter shown here records that a group of ‘Apiru, led by a certain Lab’ayyu (his name is highlighted on the photo), had seized the city of Shechem. Professor Cross proposes that the ‘Apiru were one element of the emerging Israelites and that the name ‘Apiru became transformed into ‘IbriÆm, the Hebrew name for “Hebrews.”